The latest trend in fitness is "evidence based" fitness, with a heavy reliance on scientific studies to give us an idea of the best way to train.
That said, "evidence based" is often a misnomer, because there are a lot of problems with the actual application and interpretation of evidence, as well as the fact that exercise science is still an incomplete field with a lot of work left to do.
In the absence of perfect science, and when dealing with the fact that humans respond very differently to exercise, what remains is more appropriately called art.
It’s become popular in recent years to focus on “evidence based” fitness. The growth of exercise science as a field, coupled with the ever-expanding amount of research available to us, means that for the first time it’s really possible to start drawing strong scientific conclusions about what are generally the best ways to train.
At the same time, there’s been a lot of pushback against the concept of evidence based fitness.
In many cases, charlatans are able to find poorly controlled studies to cite, giving themselves the appearance of being evidence based when the reality is that they’re anything but. They use a gish gallop of citations to bury their false methods in a pile of links that give them the appearance and feel of “science” without actually being accurate.
There has always been a history of people using bad "science" just as a way of reinforcing their personal biases - classic confirmation bias. This occurs in fitness just as much as in every other aspect of life.
This has led to the perception that "evidence based" fitness is just the next big crock of bullcrap after all, and that science isn't worth trusting. In many cases, we've been forced to admit that "evidence based" fitness isn't really so evidence based at all.
Many traditional coaches using their own methods would consider themselves to be evidence based even though they aren’t particularly read up on the science and use methods that are sometimes seemingly at odds with the data. They rely on years of experience to fill in the gaps in the data, arriving at best practices that they’ve used for decades with their clients and athletes.
Many others claim that while they don’t use evidence based methods, they’re “ahead of the science”, and waiting for the science to catch up. They imply that while it’s all fine for scientists to do research, their research doesn’t actually measure or understand what’s going on “in the trenches”. While this is occasionally true, and methods originally considered to be poor have later been justified by science, this is in the minority - more often, science proves unusual and novel training methods to be garbage.
Sadly, of course, this usually doesn't happen until long after the fad is over, the money has been made, and the average unsuspecting gymgoer has been had!
Another problem with the idea of being entirely evidence based, is that there really is a lot out there that we don’t know, haven’t properly studied yet, and don’t have proper data for. If we relied solely on scientific studies to provide recommendations for the best training practices, there wouldn’t be much we could do. This means that we're often forced to make up those gaps in other ways.
Ultimately, training is very complex and science can’t accurately test every single possible combination of sets, reps, exercises, weight, rest periods, ordering, weekly structures, and so on. For this reason, we are left to attempt to understand the relative value of a program based on its adherence to certain basic structures: the general principles of specificity, overload, volume, and numerous smaller and more specific rules about how the body adapts. We may not be able to test every single little factor, but we can get a general idea of what tends to work best in most situations.
However, even when we account for all these factors, there’s still a lot of wiggle room.
The best description that we can say right now that is increasing weekly volume on major exercises over time is the best indicator we have of the likelihood of progress. However, there are an infinite number of ways I could progress that volume: adding weight, reps, sets, splitting up that total volume in an absurd number of different ways.
Think of it like slicing up a rectangular cake. There are a theoretical infinite number of ways to do it, but we tend to fall into a handful of simple and convenient methods: cutting square pieces so that it’s easy to ensure that each piece is both easy to cut and roughly the same size. But, I could still decide to say “fuck it” to the rules, cut a few weird diagonal or rounded lines into my cake, and start going at it. Hell, I could start using my fingers.
However, these weird cuts will then dictate what I have to do with the rest of the cake. If I cut a diagonal piece out of the cake, then I also have to have a second piece that’s also got a diagonal edge to balance it out. If I cut a circle into the cake, then I have a circular hole in teh center to contend with. The more that you mess with the general structure of “cutting the cake”, the more this dictates what you have to do with the remaining pieces.
The same happens with designing an exercise program: you can mess with the variables and push the boundaries of the way that programs are normally created, but this will dictate what you have to do elsewhere. In some cases, you simply can’t do certain things while still achieving your goals.
You look at the programs of a lot of high level coaches, and they all have certain similarities. They all focus on a handful of key movements designed to maximize your return on effort when exercising. They would all establish progression and overload over time. But importantly - no two of them look exactly the same.
And this is a good thing, too, because people are massively different. The range of genetic response to even the same workout are huge. Even if you trained two people the exact same, they wouldn’t get the same results. Just as no two coaches are the same, no two people are the same, and they shouldn't be treated the same. It’s more important to have a smart plan that suits you and to stick with it than to spend endless time worrying about whether or not you’ve got the “perfect” program.
You might be able to build similar amounts of muscle and strength with a dumbbell bench press as a barbell bench press, but which you should use may be very dependent on you. Gender, age, injury history, availability of equipment, the amount of time you have, your current level of mastery, and more can all impact what kind of workout you’ll enjoy the most, or get the most out of.
Exercise science can give us a basic template or basic rules that a workout program has to satisfy in order to be effective. However, almost everything beyond that is beyond the realm of science, and can only appropriately be called art.
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